Relief & The Power of Technology (And Other Thoughts)

An Earthquake Struck
It has now been almost two weeks since the 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti on Tuesday night, January 12. Over 3 million Haitians were affected by the earthquake. Over 111,000 people lost their lives. Port-au-Prince is in shambles. And yet… Millions of dollars have been spent in search & rescue operations and relief. Millions more will continue to pour into the western hemisphere’s poorest nation over the coming months from nations world wide. At least 130 people have been found alive by rescue teams under rubble. And in the 21st century, hundreds of people world-wide are actually participating in the relief efforts even though they are hundreds or thousands of miles away. I am humbled, honored, and privileged that I am a part of it. Let me explain.

At the beginning of last weekend (a week ago) on Friday afternoon, I received an email from my housemate Luke, who had an idea. He is a doctor and is in the process of obtaining his Masters in Public Health from Harvard School of Public Health. He and a classmate of his, Catherine Mullaly, had been in touch with Director of Health for the US Department of Defense, Lynn Lawry MD,MSPH,MSc.

They learned from Lynn that while there was a good tracking system in place for NGOs working in Haiti, there was nothing that was tracking academic medical teams who were traveling. Already, there have been reports of medical teams showing up in Haiti without a firm plan of where to go or what to do. It is situations like these that can do more to actually hinder relief operations than to help.

(See this article, “Disaster do-gooders can actually hinder help,” by MSNBC. For more extensive reading on the subject of why, how, and when trying to help actually does more harm than good, I recommend reading “When Helping Hurts,” a book written by two of my professors at Covenant College as I was studying Community Development).

An Idea (And a Website) Was Born
Luke asked in his email if I would consider helping to develop a tracking system that would achieve this missing link. That evening after getting off of work, I began working on what, later that weekend, became the World Academic Teaching Hospitals (WATCH) Disaster Relief website, or The website “is to track all those in the academic medical community who are responding to the humanitarian crisis in Haiti.”

Beginning the project at 7:00pm Friday night, I worked until 4:30am developing the core functionality. On Saturday afternoon and into the evening, I spent another 8 hours or so integrating and tweaking my code with a layout that my friend and graphic designer Anya Gilliam worked on for me. On Sunday morning, I woke up at 9:00 and worked without taking a break (except for water, etc…) until 5:30 that night adding additional features and improving the existing code.

During this time, Luke and Catherine wrote up a press release (which, as of now, has not gotten any attention), and wrote an Open Letter to the Academic Medical Community which they sent to several presidents and deans of medical universities.

Over the next few days, probably because the website was so new and we did not have very many marketing resources, the website did not get much attention. We had 1 school (Florida University) post their information.

During this time, Luke, Catherine and I had begun a discussion with an NGO that we originally thought was trying to partner with us to ultimately help achieve the goal of getting this resource online as quickly as possible for the benefit of Haiti. After ignoring our proposed partnership (which was sent after an hour long conference call), we found that they had taken our idea and modified it for their own purposes for their own website, which was disappointing and angering. However, we decided not to let it get us down, and we decided to press forward.

I Get Involved in a New Project: Crisis Commons
On Thursday afternoon, I received an email that another housemate of mine (who is my landlord), Bob, had forwarded to me. The email contained an article about the internet connectivity infrastructure in Haiti and how technicians were addressing the problem of getting Haiti back “online.” But the thing that really caught my eye after clicking a few links, was an article about a new, ad-hoc organization called Crisis Commons.

Crisis Commons is an informal, grassroots movement of technology professionals (as well as non-technical volunteers) who are donating their time to meet the technology / web needs of NGOs who are working in relief, crisis situations by programming, doing data entry, providing legal advice, and doing much needed research. A very small group of individuals did something similar to what Crisis Commons is doing now back in 2004 when the tsunami hit India, but the website,, wasn’t formed until after the earthquake in Haiti. Yesterday (Saturday) was only the second weekend where volunteers came together in what is being called a “CrisisCamp,” and there were already hundreds of participants worldwide in 12 different cities including Boston, Bogota, London, and Toronto.

When I found out about the CrisisCamp on Thursday, that was meeting in Boston on Saturday, I decided to attend and help out. And so, on Saturday morning, I arrived in Cambridge ready to work for the good of Haiti. Approximately 140 volunteers showed up in the Boston CrisisCamp alone. The volunteers broke up into groups of about 15 or 20 people and took on a different project.

The project I ended up joining turned out to be primarily developed by a team of volunteers in Austin, TX, and by the time my team was ready to work, there was not very much to do.

After sitting around not doing very much for about 30 minutes or so, my coworker, Evan, and I began talking about the possibility of collaborating WATCH Disaster Relief with CrisisCommons.

As it is getting late (and I need to get some sleep – I have gotten very little of it over the past week), I am going to wrap this post up by saying that WATCH has now partnered with CrisisCommons, and will be improved and marketed by a team of volunteers over the coming days.

I learned a lot at the CrisisCamp. I learned how incredibly powerful the internet really can be. I learned how social media tools such as Twitter can create a viral effect – virtually everything surrounding CrisisCommons is organized via Twitter, IRC (an online chatting mechanism), and and Wiki Pages. I learned (very quickly) how to be a project manager (Evan helped me out immensely with this task, as I had to be occupied most of the day preparing WATCH to be developed by a team of people instead of just 1 person. Now that the day is past, I have begun to review my notes and am ready to take on the challenge of being a Project Manager.) And finally, I learned that there are a lot of technology professionals across the world who actually ARE doing a lot of good.

For more about my work with CrisisCommons, as well as some of the other projects that are being developed through CrisisCommons, check out their website,, and look for another blog post soon.



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